The agonizing pain accompanying a blessed miracle

Israel's Ethiopian community, then and now

From 1977-1985, some 8,500 Ethiopian Jews made an incredibly arduous-and, for 3,000 others, deadly-trek to Israel. Then in 1991, amidst Ethiopia's horrific civil war, Israel undertook an impressive airlift operation, bringing 15,000 Ethiopian Jews home to Israel. During those years and since, JUF has provided millions to assist in their absorption and success in Israel.

The Ethiopian community, bolstered by thousands more who made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in the ensuing decades, now numbers almost 120,000 of first, second, and even third generation Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

Sadly, inexcusably, there are still some prejudices and even some cases of racism against Jews whose skin color is different. The recent-apparently unintentional-killing of an Ethiopian teen by a police officer brought the issue to the forefront with demonstrations erupting all over the country and sometimes turning violent.

The absorption of our Ethiopian brethren has been far from perfect, but it is far from a failure. Israelis of Ethiopian origin are present in all walks of life, as doctors, lawyers, judges, ambassadors, and politicians. They are prominent in our police force, in the military, and in academia. No doubt, the huge gaps between their life in Ethiopia, where most lived in modest agrarian conditions and their life in the modern, developed "start-up nation" are bound to often take more than one or two generations to fully bridge.

Crises within the community and a feeling of alienation must be addressed as they naturally lead to frustration, anger, and too often-violence, which reflects badly on the vast majority of Ethiopian Israelis who are law-abiding, contributing members of our society.

The death of Ethiopian-Israeli teen Solomon Tekah at the hands of a police officer is still under investigation but has already created a wave of anger and frustration which is completely understandable when seen in the wider context of the community's feeling of being the subject of prejudice. There are many in the Ethiopian community who believe that police brutality aimed at them is symptomatic of widespread prejudice.

On the other hand, the violent protests which ensued caused serious damage to the image of that community and tarnished its justified protest with illegitimate violence against the police as well as against innocent bystanders and even public and private property. That violence, though instigated by only a handful, might hurt the support among some Israelis for the cause of Ethiopian Jews.

Israeli society was founded on the principles of the melting pot-connecting people from all corners of the earth, the ingathering of Diaspora Jews in our historic homeland regardless of their native country, language, heritage, traditions, and skin color. That amalgamation is what makes us strong.

If we are to grow even stronger as a society, it is incumbent upon us to accept those who look different, those who come from other parts of the Diaspora, whose traditions may differ from ours. Only through education and integrating Israelis of Ethiopian origin even more, can we really ensure that they not only belong, but they themselves recognize they fully belong. Our society stands only to gain from their full integration. We don't "accept" or "tolerate" them. "They" are us.

Is there a role for Diaspora Jewry in this effort? I believe there is. Today more than ever, there needs to be a voice for world Jewry in matters that pertain to how Israeli society defines itself. As the "homeland of the Jewish people," Israel has a fiduciary duty on behalf of all Jews, whether living here or abroad, to strengthen and foster the state of Israel as the ideal place that was designed by our founding Zionist fathers over 120 years ago.

We must strive together, Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora, to create an equitable, democratic society that will truly be a "beacon unto the world" of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and humanism. While one can argue about the participation of Diaspora Jews in decision-making relating to Israeli strategic and defense affairs (they do not, after all, share in our military burden by serving in the Israel Defense Forces), I believe that Jews all over the world can share in "Zionism 2.0." That's a project to create a homeland that embraces all Jews as well as all citizens of Israel of all faiths in a just society that represents all of us-not just those of us who own real estate in Israel.

I believe there is space for the voice of Diaspora Jews in support of minorities in Israel, in support of new immigrants, in support of religious pluralism, and in support of whatever can potentially benefit the future of our people, wherever they may be.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.



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